You can tell from the lines on her face. The debris and dead skin weighing it down, as Zakia Jafri has spent fifteen years trying to tell the courts what she saw happening to her husband Ehsan Jafri during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Why not just stand back? Keep your skin in place and forget the courts, is a question worth asking.
For Zakia Jafri to petition the courts for this long, saying that the mobs that killed 69 Muslims on 28 February 2002, were part of a larger conspiracy, isn’t just brave. It is probably suicidal.
In fact, worse. It’s choosing to have the life-blood drained out of you slowly, one court verdict at a time. First the lower courts rejected her petition, then the Gujarat high court. Now, on the 19 November, as Zakia prepares to hear what the Supreme Court has to say, I can’t help staring at pictures of her face.
Weathering the Debris of 15 Years
I remember the way she looked immediately after the riots. She was on the TV the same week, probably the same day. Her hair was black, her eyes were fierce. She wanted to tell everyone what she had seen. How the mob cut her husband to pieces even after she said he had rung the police commissioner and everyone in the government. She said there had to be a larger conspiracy behind the mobs acting with impunity and that it must link back to the man in charge of the state at the time – Narendra Modi. And then I saw what one year of Modi going from strength to strength did to her face.
I didn’t recognise Zakia when I went to meet her. Her son told me she had aged twenty years between 2002 and 2003.
Since then, Zakia’s face has weathered fifteen years of debris. While the stories around her have focused entirely on the case, I am pausing to reflect on the enormity of it all. It isn’t just the case really but the politics of hate that Zakia is fighting tirelessly against. She is carrying the load for all of us, and needs to be looked at like that.
Fighting Against a Normalised Fear
She is fighting against the fear that has become almost normal for Muslims in Gujarat – not just in Ahmedabad but much of the state. As a journalist who has lived in and reported from the state, I have a collection of anecdotes that underscore the importance of Zakia’s fight.
The time an autorickshaw driver broke down, convulsed in sobs as he dropped me back home one evening, from the mad throng of Gujarat’s Gaurav Yatra procession. There were testosterone-displaying muscular men in vests and oiled bodies standing atop trucks as the procession snaked through the walled city, and a few members shouted out insults to Muslims living there, just for the fun of it. To prevent this from descending into violence, these young boys were flanked by a large contingent of police who blew whistles to drown out the provocation. The auto driver said he was Muslim and on a day like this, scared out of his wits.
Another time, when my neighbour, a school teacher, told me how their school had a tradition, loosely enforced. Kids in class had to invite everyone to their birthday party or no one. On one occasion, it was the birthday of a Muslim girl who lived in Ahmedabad’s walled city. No parent allowed their kids to go to her party.
Living in Ahmedabad meant dealing with larger doses of claustrophobia for me in 2015 than it did in 2003. I interviewed young kids for a story on hookah bars being banned. “You need to be in an atmosphere of permissiveness and deviance to hook up with each other right,” I said to a few in a trendy café in town. “So if you can’t drink together and now you can’t even do hookahs, doesn’t it mess with the dating game?”
Most of the kids looked incredulously at me, like I had landed from Mars. Like conforming to what mummy-daddy said was the only life they knew or wanted to know.
The Sangh Parivar and Hindu right wing had succeeded here most of all. In taking the fight out of the next generation, in taking away their ability to see, question, think.
It’s as Arundhati Roy put it in a piece she just wrote about the freedom of expression, as a letter to the imprisoned Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam: “It is an attack not on intellectuals, but on intelligence itself.”
The Other Side of Midnight
And then I bring back to the centre of my mind, the other side of Gujarat; the side Zakia and many like her are fighting to keep. The not-so-middle-class and not-so-obedient. Dissent is in their DNA. Criminals and bootleggers and women and men I know, that live in the rudest places. Where they don’t mince their words or their politics. One woman who is the ‘don’ of her ghetto, sat beside me, her ears lit up with fat diamonds. “These people (from the Parivar) come to me regularly, inviting me for this, that and the other. I say to myself, what could possibly make me want to attend their functions? Do they have big d*cks on display or something?” she said, her laughter piercing the night sky with its deviance.
Another woman, another ghetto. I was asking her how she responded to all the homilies being trotted out about the space she lived in.
“People keep saying, since this is largely a tribal area, the women are in control, the men are all subservient to them. This is an egalitarian space.” She looked at me, shaking with laugher on her charpai. “Acha, that’s what they tell you?”
And then she trashed it the only way she knew. She yanked her daughter in-law from the dark, summoning her to where she sat. “She has been treated so badly by her mother in-law. Starved, given stale food to eat. And they talk about equality? Wait till I see that woman. I will shove chillies in her butt and salt in her c*nt.” Without meaning to, this woman was demonstrating how she was bending patriarchy, one expletive at a time.
The Disobedient Middle-Class
Then there are the thoroughly disobedient middle-class people. Some conform in principle and privately laugh at those who take the establishment seriously. They nod politely at all that’s being said, and then go and vote against them. The numbers for the BJP dropped sharply in the 2017 assembly elections, and this quiet up-chucking of everything mandated, is at the very heart of it. Where the Sangh Parivar has succeeded, it is appealing to the Gujarati disregard of norms and rules. And that is where it is also starting to fail.
After nearly twenty years of the Hindu-right holding the reins of power, they are beginning to see that the same non-observance of rules applies to them.
Whatever the courts say to Zakia Jafri, she knows, this is the fight that has made her age. But it’s also the fight worth going down for. Even when it fails, it succeeds.
It slowly changes the everyday – with one non-veg meal, one expletive, one court case. Making things a lot less certain, as the Parivar prepares for the big fight in 2019.
(Revati Laul is a Delhi based journalist and film-maker and the author of ‘The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Context/Westland and in stores from November 30th, 2018. She tweets@revatilaul. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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